Zanzibar’s Seaweed Farming Industry Provides Livelihood for Women

Paje, Zanzibar – As the sun rises to begin a new day, the women of Zanzibar dot the beaches in their colorful kangas (traditional Swahili dress) to start their work. They are the seaweed farmers, taking advantage of the low tide to collect seaweed that washes ashore throughout the night, plant seedlings and harvest the crop. According to the government, about 80% of the seaweed farmers are women, and as one of the top exports for the island, seaweed provides a livelihood for them.

Zanzibar—an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa—is considered paradise. Zanzibar’s beauty is unmatched, with tourists flocking to enjoy the white sand beaches and turquoise waters during high season. Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania, has two main islands called Pemba and Unguja (Swahili for Zanzibar Island) and about 51 other surrounding small islets. And as a tourist on Zanzibar’s east coast, it’s hard to miss the daily activity of seaweed farmers.

Commercial seaweed farming in Zanzibar began in 1989. Juma Ali Juma, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, said that seaweed farming has improved significantly since then.

“It is an industry that is growing because before we used to export only 4,000 tonnes of seaweed, now it is 16,000 tonnes a year,” he said, adding that there are currently 23,654 seaweed farmers in Zanzibar. “In terms of value and contribution to our economy, seaweed is the third most productive sector after tourism and cloves.”

Even though the Zanzibar group of islands are known as “Spice Islands” with cloves being the top export, it is seaweed that is first in terms of volume. According to Juma, Zanzibar is exporting 5,000 tonnes of cloves annually versus the 16,000 tonnes of seaweed.

Comparatively, Zanzibar is the third biggest exporter of seaweed—after the Philippines and Indonesia. Seaweed from Zanzibar is exported to the United States, Denmark, Sweden, the UK and China. The seaweed ends up getting used in toothpaste, as the food additive carrageenan, in shampoos, cosmetics, medicine and other pharmaceutical products.

But with the current price of seaweed being historically low, around $0.27 per kilogram, the Ministry is looking at other ways to help farmers. Rather than exporting raw seaweed, they are pushing for an initiative that would involve creating value-added products such as using seaweed powder to make soaps, adding it as a spice into cakes, and creating body oils and shampoos with it.

“We want private companies to come here, join hands with the government and invest into these types of industries,” said Juma. “We need to create an enabling environment for training and factories to happen.”

Most farmers collect and dry seaweed, along the road for example, in order to sell to dealers

One company that is already following this value-added model is the Seaweed Center in Paje, a small village on the southeastern coast of Unguja. Their main focus is making valuable skin care products from seaweed.

“We think what they are doing is a good model and we would like other producers to adopt the system they are doing,” said Juma. “We want to expand to other areas same way they are doing.”

The Seaweed Center opened in 2011 with funding from a wealthy and passionate Swedish family through their philanthropic organisation called the Rylander Foundation. The Rylanders, a well to do family, invest into such projects. They recognized the value of seaweed farming and wanted to create an avenue that would provide sustainable livelihoods for local women. What started out as a social enterprise has turned into a successful production company where they now make high quality products such as soaps, body oils and body scrubs.

The Mamas at the Seaweed Center use local ingredients to hand make and package products at their production facility

Klaartje Schade, CEO of the Seaweed Center, explained how far the Center has come. When she first started, there was no clear plan or structure, which created an unsustainable situation.

"I took over two years ago. The Center was not reaching sustainability after continued funding since its establishment," she said. "Despite this, I felt there was a huge opportunity to build a unique business that would genuinely resonate with people and inspire."

Shortly after she joined, a budget was agreed upon with the Rylander Foundation to allow for the implementation of a business plan. The vision was to have the Center thrive on its own two feet. Schade knew that she had all the elements to create an international standard of skin care.

“A brand in skin care industry needs to be unique in its story and have a sense of purpose that customers are inspired by,” she said. “The women of Paje had all the elements to make this possible—their personalities and the beauty of seaweed farming was already a great canvas to work with.”

All she needed was a solid group of women who would be passionate about raising the bar every day. Women who believe, like she does, that skin care needs to be uncompromising in quality. She eventually found her team.

The Mamas work together to make seaweed farms by tying seedlings to ropes, which are then held together between sticks

For the past year, the Seaweed Center, which currently employs 10 women from the local community, has been self-funded by profit reinvestment and business is thriving.

Located off the main road in Paje, the Center is within walking distance to the beach. To get there you wind along on the sandy path, passing small stone houses of poor local villagers, and around a rocky turn to come to the driveway of the Center.

The women or “Mamas” as they are lovingly called have everything they need on-site—a spice garden in the front yard, a production facility where they hand make products, and the ocean behind them for farming. Even though the Mamas wear uniforms and not traditional kangas like the independent farmers, their method of farming remains very traditional. That is because the Mamas all come from a seaweed farming background, having had their own farms to make ends meet before joining the Center.

Once at the Center, they received formal training and education on how to care for their seaweed and how to produce premium quality (organic and natural) products. On their own, they were making roughly $60 per month from farming full-time and selling it to cooperatives. At the Center they are making four times that amount, plus commission from sales at the end of the month.

A shop has been established where a variety of seaweed based items are for sale. The most popular selling item is seaweed soap, which comes in a variety of flavors from cloves, coffee, lemongrass and eucalyptus, all with pure essential oil and/or fresh powder, no perfume. The Center exports their products to Europe with plans to export to the United States, Asia and the Middle East.

Seaweed can be used to create value-added products like soaps, body scrubs and body oils, all of which are sold at the Center

It takes six weeks to harvest the seaweed and two days to dry it. The Mamas farm seaweed using long-established methods just like the other farmers, but since they have been trained at the Center, they use modern techniques like changing seedlings frequently. Not using new seedlings, a common mistake made by farmers on the island, results in sick plants. This, and the effects of climate change, has had an impact on local farmers.

Narriman Jiddawi is a marine biologist at the Institute of Marine Studies. She has been studying seaweed farming since it first began in Zanzibar.

“Although there is no decline in seaweed production, the total harvest per year could have been more but the climate has affected the seaweed,” Jiddawi said. “Because the water temperature is high it kills the seaweed or retards its growth.”

The neighbouring island of Pemba is contributing to 70% of Zanzibar’s seaweed exports because farmers there are able to grow it in deep water where it is cooler—one successful way to counteract climate change, according to Jiddawi. She said that on Unguja the farms are still in shallow water because the women cannot swim.

She knows the only way forward will be to have a meeting to educate the women on how to grow their seaweed in a different way—in deeper water, using a floating line system. And while she likes the idea of value-added products and agrees with Juma that it is a good way forward, what she wants in addition to that is for the government to build factories where farmers can dry their seaweed and chop it into pieces—basically to process it here before it is exported abroad.

Unlike some of the local farmers facing problems, the Mamas at the Center have been lucky. They feel blessed to work there because it increases their quality of life. Few women in Zanzibar go to university—with most finishing at the high school level.

"The happiest day of my life is when I was employed and knew I could provide for my family. It was out of my expectations in life as my education level is very low," said Mama Mauwa. "I want to enable my children to have a good education level."

Some of the women are divorced, single mothers, and some have families. Their children view their mothers and aunts in a different light now that they earn enough money to support the households.

"Earning better income, we pay for the school fees. We are building our own houses," said Mama Patima, a supervisor at the Center. "We support our families."

"Earning better income, we pay for the school fees. We are building our own houses," said Mama Patima, a supervisor at the Center. "We support our families."

Culturally it is not often expected that women go into the workforce, so seaweed has allowed them to become independent—to the point where they can in fact pay school fees and build houses.

For the Center growth of business and social impact is the aim. There are plans to have a larger impact by expanding and opening up more Seaweed Centers around the archipelago.

Jiddawi, who works extensively with local women in the field, sees firsthand how seaweed farming has empowered women in Zanzibar. She said most women catch seaweed, dry it and they sell it to dealers, but because of the low price of seaweed right now, she is advising them to continue farming, but to also take up a side business—like collecting seashells and making earrings to sell to tourists.

Despite mortality, despite effects of climate change, despite the low price of seaweed, the industry is still doing well in Zanzibar.

"Once you are hooked, you can’t leave it. It’s like a cigarette. That’s what the women tell me,” said Jiddawi. 

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